'Bring It On: The Musical' at the Southwark Playhouse - a Review

Credit: British Theatre Academy

When I was a fresh-faced nineteen-year-old, I took up cheerleading. This move was met with some surprise by my family, given that organised sports, dancing and 'pep!' had never really seemed like my sort of thing, but I was on my college team for three years. We were very much amateurs in two senses of the word - we placed dead last in every competition we entered, and we loved cheerleading.

Being, well, British, our exposure to cheerleading was minimal at best - it was basically Bring It On, the 2000 Kirsten Dunst/Gabrielle Union film that dominates the pop-culture cheerleading pantheon, and we watched it with worrying frequency. That film spawned five direct-to-video sequels and it is the third in the series, which stars Hayden Panettiere and Solange Knowles(!), on which the musical version currently running at the Southwark Playhouse is loosely based. This is a youth production which forms part of the British Theatre Academy's summer season, meaning the cast are all under the age of 23, and often much younger than that - perfectly fitting for a high school-set musical.

The storyline, as the characters themselves point out at the top of the second half, is our classic late nineties problematic fave: posh (white) student - the captain of the squad! - has to move to ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ and ‘save’ the tragic people she finds there through cheer, but also learn from them too! Without delving too deep into spoiler territory, the show manages to bring something fresh to this idea, with added revenge drama, and baskets (basket tosses!) of self-aware humour. The book, by Jeff Whitty of Avenue Q fame, is consistently hilarious, with just as much bite as the source material.

Robyn McIntyre is a revelation in the lead role of Campbell, the wronged cheer captain. Her sweet voice rings clear and true on solos and group numbers, filling the intimate space at the Southwark Playhouse with the frustrations and triumphs of being seventeen. Isabella Pappas (a 15-year-old Olivier nominee!), Clair Gleave and Sydnie Hocknell bring seriously impressive comedic chops to the roles of Skylar, Kylar and Eva, the former cheer squad buddies that Campbell has to leave behind at her old high school, particularly in surreal second act standout 'Killer Instinct', where Eva directs her loyal squad of unicorns around with disturbing authority. Kristine Kruse is a delight in extremely fierce dungarees as she portrays Bridget, infusing a lot of heart and fun into a slightly clich├ęd role that could have been mere characature in lesser hands - the uncool kid who quickly outshines former queen bee Campbell when they both have to transfer schools.

The performances by the students at their new high school are equally strong, with Chisara Agor as Danielle, the leader of Jackson’s dance crew (which is definitely not a cheer squad!) singing with a beautifully mature, soulful tone, and Mary Celeste and Matthew Brazier as her friends and fellow crew-members Nautica and La Cienega somehow managing to bring both sass and warmth in abundance.

The character of La Cienega is particularly interesting. The role was originated by Gregory Haney, now in the West End production of Hamilton, who said the following in a 2012 interview with Out.com: “La Cienaga is a transgender girl. You never see me as a boy. I like that. It doesn’t take the audience out of the illusion. You never wonder what’s under her dress; she’s one of the girls.”

In the images from the original production, you can see that the styling choices for this character were traditionally feminine. In this version La Cienega, while still wearing feminine clothes, has a more masculine hairstyle, and bolder, less natural makeup than the other girls. This means very little in itself, but in combination with the fact that she speaks in quite a 'camp' manner and uses AAVE, which obviously feels more natural when the character is played by a black actor (in this version the actor playing her is white), it leads to the character being perhaps more ambiguous than originally portrayed, and ends up feeling closer to drag. Since La Cienega was lauded as the first transgender teenager in a Broadway show, it seems a shame to have maybe missed a rare opportunity for trans girls and women, and particularly trans girls and women of colour, to see themselves represented on stage.

Portraying another student at the school, Haroun Al-Jeddal is wonderfully poignant (did someone say John Laurens?) as former dork and current music-enthusiast Randall, and delivers one of the most affecting moments of sincerity in ‘Enjoy the Trip’, an ode to living in the moment, and a timely reminder that everything passes, both good and bad. That, in essence, is the message at the heart of this show - high school will end, life sometimes doesn't go the way you planned, but whatever happens, it's the people you meet and the way that you treat them that matters. It's not the most original of takes, but it's one we all need to hear every once in a while.

This is a fun, youthful show brimming with optimism and sickeningly talented young people. The cheer-inspired dance routines (by Director/Choreographer Ewan Jones) made my peppy little heart very happy, and the cast manage to fit a surprising amount of movement and action into Tom Paris' neat, colourful set. Musically, it's a treat, featuring songs from Tom Kitt (Next To Normal), Amanda Green (Hands on a Hardbody) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, In The Heights - to which much of the score owes a debt of inspiration). The combination of writers work well together to create songs that authentically represent the lives of the characters, weaving between pop and hip hop effortlessly, supported by the impressive band under the direction of Chris Ma.

With Hamilton reigning supreme over the West End and Broadway, there will no doubt be some fans drawn to the show by the name Lin-Manuel Miranda alone. While Bring It On: The Musical is perhaps a little less groundbreaking than his other shows - and the writing credits shared out with other brilliant writers - it is no less exuberant and enjoyable. Whether you're a Bring It On fan (like me), or a LMM fan (like me!), if you want a show with laughs, stunts and a whole heap of cheer you'll be hard-pressed to find a better night out than this.

Bring It On: The Musical is open now, and will be at the Southwark Playhouse until 1 September (when many of the cast have to go back to school!)